25 September 2011

+JMJ+

Not the N-word

My grandmother is a mestiza, or the Philippines' version of a Creole, and all her childhood, she was accustomed to being the most light-skinned girl in the room. It all changed when she took a trip to Spain in the late 1940s. She was exotically dark even to the olive-skinned Sevillians, and young men would come on to her by addressing her as "Negra."

I remember sharing that anecdote with some of my students, whose horrified reactions showed they had missed the context entirely. It wasn't really their fault, the young things. These days, the nice description for a dark-skinned girl as morena . . . which isn't much of a compliment, as the modern beauty craze is the perfect skin lightening moisturiser. =P

Then there are the odd generational factors . . . Young men are just not as forward with girls as their fathers used to be (I blame the feminists who never got hit on and don't want the rest of us to get hit on either) . . . and it's worth wondering whether exposure to US pop culture has given Filipinos an acquired aversion to the "n-word."

Now, I'm not a big fan of shaming language. I know how powerful words can be, how effective they are in both building up and knocking down, and think that we'd be better communicators (both speakers and listeners) if we understood this. I also think that the best communicators combine this fine sensitivity with skin thick enough to repel bullets.

3 WordsThat Sound Racist but Really Aren't

Niggard

Romance author Jo Beverley was once told off in her own combox by a disgruntled reader for using the "racist" adverb niggardly in one of her novels.

Ah, how do you even answer accusations like that???

Beverley was polite but firm in her reply, pointing out that "niggard" and "nigger," despite nearly being homophones (Why do I have the feeling I'll draw more fire from "homophone" than from "nigger"?) aren't even from the same root. The former is from the Scandinavian nygg, which has always meant stingy; the latter from the Latin niger, which has always meant black.

So what we can take away from this is the lesson that if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck . . . you might still want to check your ornithological dictionary first. You don't want to end up with swan egg on your face.

Snigger

This is a word which we can't really afford to lose. Like "gay," it has many synonyms but no real equal. Yes, we can say "cheerful" instead of "gay" these days . . . but we've already lost the second word's phonetic tug on our mouths that makes simply saying it an exercise in smiling. Thesauri everywhere are poorer for it.

Now, "snigger" doesn't seem like such a huge loss. It has dark undertones to it that suggest that someone is laughing at another's misfortune. (Okay, am I now going to get in trouble for writing "dark undertones"?) We also have "snicker," its more light-hearted fraternal twin, which brings to mind one of the best chocolate bars on the planet and the wholesome whickering of horses. So why not just retire the controversial word which happens to be a perfect anagram of "niggers"?

When it comes to words, there are two ways to lose: a) making ourselves unable to name something good; and b) making ourselves unable to name something bad. A character who snickers comes across as a mere prankster; one who sniggers can be recognised as a villain. It has nothing to do with racism and everything to do with what we hear in a laugh that is swallowed rather than shared.

Negus

This one comes with a YouTube video that you might have already seen.



Important issues first . . . Isn't the look on the boy's face at the end absolutely fantastic??? =D

When someone told me about this, I assumed the first syllable contained a Short I sound. I was surprised when I finally watched the video and heard the Long E sound.

You know how some people hear only what they want to hear? I guess some people only want to hear what can make them feel self-righteously offended.

But even in this, there was a "teaching moment": now we all know what the pre-1974 ruler of Ethiopia was called.

20 comments:

Jenny said...

Words are funny things. The kids face was awesome!

christopher said...

I remember that clip, although the fact that only the judges knew what in the world the word meant signifies no real loss I think if that word should be wiped; king is just as good or better for English use. Snigger, on the other hand, is already on the endangered list of descriptively great words and would be a real loss.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Jenny -- The boy's face makes the whole clip! =D

Christopher -- I've been ambivalent about spelling bees ever since I learned that most of the words the children have to spell aren't even in English. (Geography bees: now those are competitions with real-world significance!)

Oh, just a few hours ago, I heard some weird man's voice sniggering over the name "Lenore." Know anything about that?

Belfry Bat said...

Actually, I think I better understand the title of an occasional character from the Star Treks, the top-dollar Firengi... I never understood what they were calling him, but this gives it a little more depth, now.

I mean, we all know what a Pharaoh was, even though there aren't any more, and that's nowhere near as recently as 197n. Of course, it helps that one of them is in the readings every Easter by title and another in the Museum of London for folk to oggle and tut-tut over...

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Yes, but any of those children could spell "pharaoh" in his sleep, and spelling bee judges want to make things as challenging (and as irrelevant to real life) as possible.

Michael said...

Ah the power of words (and skin tone) :P

My mom is of French, Indian, and African ancestry (and the descendants of folks who never knew slavery) and is what they used to call in the American South, "hi yellow." :P

In the US among a certain segment of American blacks calling each other "nigger" is just fine, but woe be to you if you use that word and are not a "black American," lol.

Then there is the curious case of niggardly, which when used among a certain segment of American blacks is immediately taken as an insult despite proper usage of the word. The assumption being that its root must be in some negative connotation about black folk.

Funny, but some of these same folk would not think twice about saying "the dude tried to "jew" me down." Go figure.

On the other hand I love the dastardliness often hinted at with the word snigger, and plan on using it for the rest of my days but many of the modern dictionaries have made it the virtual equivalent of snicker. Close (sort of) but no cigar.

Ditto on the geography bee.

As for the forwardness of young men these days you might find this article of interest.

An Argument Against Being A Pushy Broad And Asking Men Out

Fortunately, I have never had a problem in this area ;P

Michael said...

Ha! That should be "high yellow"!!

Darwin said...

I've never even heard anyone object to the word "Snigger". This is controversial?

But I love the word because my kids spend all day sniggering at this and that, and it's just the word to describe a certain silly kind of laughter.

Darwin said...

And, of course, that's me, MrsDarwin, posting. :)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Michael -- Hi, Yellow! (Just kidding!) You know, I knew you would get this post! ;-)

Funny you should share that link . . . I discovered Amy Alkon's blog a few weeks ago after she blogged about a certain TSA agent. (Let me guess: that's how you found her, too? LOL!) But that's not actually the funny part. =P What's funny is that I was discussing the same subject with a mixed group of people who reached the opposite conclusion: that women should, though in non-pushy ways, initiate more.

Mrs. Darwin -- I haven't heard anyone object to it, either, but I'm sure it's not a word that is easy to listen to these days. I wonder whether it's silently being rendered archaic.

Mark in Spokane said...

Thanks for the post! I've got a link on my blogroll posted to this site, and I was wondering what your policy was one reciprocal linking...

lisa :) said...

Glad to see the plethora of comments has nothing to do with saying homophone. ;)

I love your defense of check your ornithological dictionary first - wonderfully said!

Bob Wallace said...

No one is the U.S. uses the word "niggard" anymore. Most people don't even know what it means, and many blacks here are so ignorant they truly believe it means "nigger." I saw Muhammed Ali (who, with an IQ of 78, truly is a moron) scold a guy on TV many years ago for using the word "niggard."

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Mark -- It's a very positive policy. =) I'll put a link up to your blog, too.

Lisa -- Phew! I know, right? ;-)

Bob -- The novelist I mention who used that word grew up in England and then moved to Canada with her husband. I guess "niggard" doesn't rub people the wrong way in those two Anglophone countries. On the other hand, it's also not a commonly used word (whatever the factors), so I'm not surprised that people who haven't encountered it before will assume that it is derived from the more objectionable racial epithet. (Of course, they could also give the speaker the benefit of the doubt and look up the meaning on their own . . . but how many people do that these days, too?)

Michael said...

. . I discovered Amy Alkon's blog a few weeks ago after she blogged about a certain TSA agent. (Let me guess: that's how you found her, too? LOL!)

Nope, actually Amy retweeted a blog post I did awhile ago on the potential benefits (and demonstrated pleasures of tobacco):

Reach For A Lucky Instead Of A Sweet

And before that I saw her in my twitter stream frequently as a few people I follow on twitter also follow her.

But that's not actually the funny part. =P What's funny is that I was discussing the same subject with a mixed group of people who reached the opposite conclusion: that women should, though in non-pushy ways, initiate more.

I have never liked the initial move being made by a woman, and I think that is the gist of what Amy is saying. After that point mutual initiation is welcomed as a way for a man to know that the woman is actually interested (which I believe she also mentions), a mutual dance of sorts.

Michael said...

The novelist I mention who used that word grew up in England and then moved to Canada with her husband. I guess "niggard" doesn't rub people the wrong way in those two Anglophone countries. On the other hand, it's also not a commonly used word (whatever the factors), so I'm not surprised that people who haven't encountered it before will assume that it is derived from the more objectionable racial epithet.

Yeah, I think it is something pretty unique to the US. Wiki has a section on the controversies surrounding the word. Of note is the comment from a Brit that they only get complaints about the word from the US.


Controversies about the word "niggardly"

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I don't like making the initial move, either. But I'm starting to feel some real sympathy for men who make the initial move all the time and get shot down (or even let down nicely) 95% of the time. I'm not saying women should take up all offers, but that we should realise that initiating just isn't as easy as we think it is. (And if we imagine that Mr. Right is going to hop into the same taxi that we've hailed--Guess which modern RomCom I found inexplicably riveting the other night?--and know exactly what to say to get us attracted and interested . . . then we're living in a fairytale. =P)

Now where was I?

Oh, yes . . . I don't think the word "initiation" is what I'm looking for, but how about this scenario? A woman wants a man to ask her to dance, but although he's stealing glances at her now and then, he doesn't come over. So the next time he looks at her, she gives him the warmest smile she can muster . . . maybe lowers her chin a little in subtle invitation. (Of course, if he still doesn't want to come over, then she should probably cut her losses and smile at someone else.)

PS -- In an e-mail I was just writing, I used the verb "to denigrate." I didn't remember it when I wrote this post, but I think it would have made a great leg of this list--especially since it does come from the Latin niger.

Belfry Bat said...

Nigra sum, sed pulchra...

Kate said...

Jumping in a little late to say that I'm American and use the word niggardly, though yes, with caution since it's very, very often misheard and misunderstood. In any case, I was quite pleased to see it on your list. Even my beloved boyfriend was once shocked to hear me use the word "niggardly" once.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

And now I'm answering very late to say that I totally understand! Thanks so much for commenting. =)